Wednesday, April 25, 2007

They have ways of making you talk

Sometime after May 18, government regulators will likely order the nation's major fast-food chains to turn over proprietary information about how they solicit business from kids. The biggest names in the trade will be directed to disclose strategies and tactics they've diligently safeguarded almost from their first day; it'll be like ordering Coke and Pepsi to post their secret formulas on

I may be going out on a limb here, but it's not going to be a fun experience for the chains. But they'll have no choice. As the Federal Trade Commission said last week in an official government posting, it asked nicely for the input awhile back, but got "minimal information," and virtually no hard facts or figures. Now it's using its power to compel disclosure, including how much the chains spend in their marketing to children and adolescents.

The only thing that could stop them would be a public outcry. One of the weirder formalities of regulatory changes is the requirement that input be sought from affected parties and the general population. So the FTC dutifully filed an announcement last week in the Federal Register, a medium that tax lawyers and CPAs shun because of its dullness. The agency asked for feedback on its plan to wrest the info from food sellers. But why am I bothering to point that out? You no doubt noticed the invitation yourself as you were leafing through your home copy of the Register, if you can manage to grab it from your kids. It was the item right after the heads-up about a Federal Reserve Open Market Committee meeting, near that sizzler about a change at the Federal Reserve of Kansas.

Amazingly, the FTC's demand for information probably will trigger a public outcry—for curbs on the chains and the other marketers, not on the agency's actions. The restaurateurs will almost certainly be required to turn over data on how much they spend in marketing to children, and those numbers are going to seem gargantuan to people unfamiliar with prevailing advertising rates. At best, the public is going to come away with the sense that the big national brands are buying the loyalty of unsuspecting children; at worst, it'll be convinced the fast-food chains are deep-pocketed villains who've been stoking an obesity epidemic with their diabolical marketing schemes.

Either way, there very well could be a call for regulation, or what the FTC was conceived to do. All it needs to do is force the process forward. And apparently that's exactly what it plans to do.

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